PhD Application

The general application process for PhD programs is similar to applying to a bachelors or masters program. However, the application requirements for PhD programs are often more specific and require much more consideration and preparation.

Application Components

When you apply to PhD programs, you often apply to both the university and to the department in which you would like to study. In general, university and departmental requirements are the same, although your specific department may ask you to provide more detailed information.

Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)

Universities and PhD programs want to see what you have accomplished, including jobs, previous degrees, awards and publications (if you have any). The resume or curriculum vitae gives admissions committees a brief overview of what you have done and studied in the past.

Writing Sample

Scholarly writing is a talent that most PhD candidates must possess, especially if they plan to teach and research at the college level. This is true for nearly all disciplines, since PhD graduates tend to focus on publishing their research in scholarly journals.

The type and length of your writing sample will vary based on the university and department to which you are applying. However, most PhD programs will request a 15 to 30-page writing sample but often run between 15 and 20 pages. Many applicants use term papers from their undergraduate studies or previously published research articles. If you do not have either of these, contact the department and ask about what other types of samples you can submit.


Almost every university and department will require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). There are general and subject-specific GRE tests. Most PhD programs will only ask you to submit scores from the general exam. The GRE has a general test that is divided into 3 parts: math, verbal reasoning and analytical writing.

The GRE lets admissions committees compare applicants based on 3 general skill areas. Some schools and departments have minimum GRE scores that students must meet in order to be considered for admission into the program. In many cases, your GRE score will also help determine the type and amount of funding that you can receive.

Few people like to take standardized tests. However, if you have a weak GPA from your undergraduate studies, a high score on the GRE can show admissions committees that you have the intellectual abilities needed to earn a PhD.

General Information
In recent years, the GRE General Test was changed to the GRE Revised General Test. There are still 3 sections to the test – verbal reasoning, analytical writing and quantitative reasoning – but there are some significant differences between the old and the new versions. The questions on the revised GRE have been changed to more accurately represent the kinds of critical thinking tasks that you will do as a graduate student. In addition, the format of the GRE Revised General Test has been made more intuitive for test-takers.

The new version of the GRE also uses a different scoring system. Therefore, although GRE scores are usually valid for 5 years, some PhD programs may require you to take the new GRE Revised General Test even if you have recently taken the old version. Be sure to check with your PhD program about specific GRE requirements.

If you are not satisfied with you GRE scores, you can retake the exam once every 60 days, or 5 times in 1 calendar year. If you live in the U.S. or its territories, it will cost you $160 to register for the GRE Revised General Test. If you live outside of the U.S., you will have to pay a slightly higher fee of $190. Late registration costs $25 and you must also pay a $50 fee if you need to reschedule your exam or switch to a different testing center.

You can register for the GRE online. If you have a disability and need spcial accommodations, you should make sure to apply early.

If you take the computerized GRE Revised General Test, your verbal and quantitative reasoning scores will be ready to view as soon as you finish the exam. However, you will have to wait for your analytical writing score.

If you are unhappy with your initial GRE scores, you can register to take the exam again and your new scores will replace the original ones. However, you cannot cancel just 1 part of your score, such as verbal reasoning or math. Instead, your new exam scores replace the old ones in all 3 of the testing categories.

GRE Revised General Test
Although certain PhD programs may care more about 1 or 2 sections more than another, you should try to do well on all 3 sections of your GRE exam. Your overall score can be an important factor in whether or not you gain admission as well as in determining how much funding you receive.

One of the most significant changes to the GRE Revised General Test is the way in which some multiple choice questions are written. For instance, in the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections, some of the new questions ask you to choose ALL of the answers that are correct, rather than a single correct answer. Be sure to read each question carefully so that you understand exactly how to answer it.

The 3 sections of the GRE Revised General Test are:

Verbal Reasoning – measures your ability to read materials, analyze content and extract information in order to form an opinion and draw conclusions. The 3 types of questions that you will find in this section are:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Text completion
  • Sentence equivalence

Quantitative Reasoning – tests you on your ability to use basic mathematical skills and concepts to reason quantitatively and solve problems. The quantitative reasoning section addresses 4 types of math, including:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Data analysis

Analytical Writing – looks at your ability to think critically, write analytically, articulate and support complex ideas and sustain an argument throughout an essay. Your score on the analytical writing section of the GRE Revised General Test is separate from the scores that you receive on the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections. You will be given the following types of questions to answer:

  • Issue analysis
  • Argument analysis

Subject Tests
In addition to the GRE Revised General Test, some PhD programs may ask that you take a subject test as well. There are 8 subject tests and all but 1 are offered as paper-based tests in April, October and November. The registration fee for all subject tests is $140. However, like the general test you will be charged additional fees if you register late or have to change your test time.

The GRE subject tests are available in:

Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology
Literature in English

The new scoring system for the GRE Revised General Test rates the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections on a 130 to 170-point scale in 1-point increments. For the analytical writing section, the essays are scored on a scale of 0 to 6 in half-point increments. If you have already taken the new test and want to know how your old GRE scores compare with the new scoring system, ETS provides a score conversion chart.

Although each PhD program will have its own GRE score requirements, the average GRE scores from 2007 to 2010 will give you an idea of how other test takers performed on these types of tests.

  • Verbal – 151 (old GRE score equivalent of 456)
  • Quantitative – 159 (old GRE score equivalent of 590)
  • Writing – 3.8

For the subject tests, the scores are scaled from 200 to 990 and are scored in 10-point increments. Some tests have sub-scores for their different sections; these scores range from 20 to 99 and are scaled in 1-point increments.

Test Preparation
It is a good idea to prepare for the GRE Revised General Test and there are several ways that you can do this. If you are an independent learner, you can purchase test preparation books or use the free materials found on the ETS website. If you choose to use a book, you can find them at most bookstores, public libraries and online stores. However, make sure that you use a review book that is for the new GRE Revised General Test.

If you need more direction and guidance for your test preparation experience, you can sign up for test preparation courses. Professional education companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review offer on-site GRE preparation classes that teach you about the format of the test as well as strategies for scoring well. However, these programs tend to be quite expensive. Some community colleges and universities also offer GRE prep courses that are typically more affordable.


When you apply to PhD programs, you will also be asked to submit official transcripts from your undergraduate school as well as any graduate schools that you have attended. Transcripts are a record of the classes that you have taken and the grades that you earned in them.

It is relatively easy to order sets of transcripts from your school's registrars' offices. However, you should be sure to do this several months before your application is due. Colleges and universities often receive many requests for transcripts in the fall, which means that it may take longer for them to process your request.

Some PhD programs ask you to scan and upload unofficial transcripts for your initial application. However, you will still have to submit an official copy if you gain admission. While official transcripts typically cost around $10, you can usually get a free copy of your unofficial transcripts from the school registrar.

Statement of Academic Purpose

The statement of purpose, or personal statement, is a very important part of your PhD application. You must use it to describe what you are interested in studying, how your background has prepared you for this and what you plan to do with your degree once you have finished.

Most PhD programs expect you to have a specific idea of what you would like to study, research and write about before you apply. If there is a faculty member at the school who does research in your field of interest, it may help you to contact them and discuss your ideas for research projects and dissertations.

Letters of Recommendation

PhD admissions committees usually request academic letters of recommendation because they want to get to know you from the perspective of other professors and instructors. However, if you have been out of school for several years and have not stayed in touch with your professors, some admissions committees also accept recommendation letters from employers or managers.

Be sure that you ask your former professors or employers for recommendation letters early on in the application process. Professors often have to write recommendation letters for several students each semester, and it may take them several weeks or months before they have time to write yours. Also be sure to give your recommenders all of the information that they need to write a positive and relevant letter supporting your application.

Application Timeline

Before you apply to any online or offline PhD program, you should be sure of what you want to study. Doctorate degrees require a large commitment of time and money, and they are usually a lifelong career choice.

Gathering your application materials for a PhD program can take a lot of time. You should be sure to give yourself at least 6 months to complete your application. Additionally, you should begin to research different universities and PhD programs before you begin to apply.

Here are a few suggestions for how to organize the application process:

  • In your first month, you should schedule your GRE test date if you have not already taken the exam. You should also begin to research schools and PhD programs where you might want to apply. This involves contacting faculty members with whom you would like to work. In addition, you should begin to look for funding opportunities. Most fellowships and scholarships require you to apply at least 6 months before they are awarded. Order your transcripts.
  • In your second month, you should identify the people who you would like to write your letters of recommendation. Make sure that they understand exactly what they need to do and when these letters are due. Order your transcripts from any universities or colleges that you have previously attended. You can usually request that transcripts be sent directly to the schools to which you are applying. Start drafting your statement of purpose or personal statement.
  • In your third month, continue to write and revise your statement of purpose. Start to fill out your applications. Most PhD programs now have online applications, and some no longer accept paper applications. Online applications allow you to begin an application and then save your progress.
  • In your fourth month, you should decide if you want to take the GRE Revised General Test over again. Ask friends or colleagues to read your personal statement and make suggestions on how to improve it. Check on the status of your transcripts.
  • In your fifth month, you should check in with your recommenders to see how they are coming along. Finalize your personal statement and any other statements that are needed for grant or scholarship applications. If all of your materials are gathered and finished, you can begin finalizing and submitting your applications to PhD programs.
  • In your sixth month, check with the schools to which you have applied to make sure that they have received your applications and all accompanying documents. However, most schools will send you an e-mail to let you know when all of your application materials have been received or if anything is missing.

It is important to remember that most PhD programs require an application fee of $50 to $100. Although it is a good idea to apply to several schools to increase your chances of acceptance, the application and transcript fees can make the application process quite expensive.

Likelihood of Admission

PhD programs accept a very small number of students each year and can therefore be very selective. In addition, the amount of available funding is often a determining factor in whether or not you will be accepted. If the department to which you are applying is unable to offer you funding, they may choose to not offer you a place in their program. By securing funding from outside sources, you might be able to increase your chances of gaining admission to a PhD program.

Possible Outcomes

If you are rejected from a PhD program, contact the department and ask how you could improve your application. They may tell you that you were not accepted due to funding limits, or they may suggest that you refine your research goals before you apply again. If you have developed a relationship with a faculty member in these departments, you are far more likely to learn why your application was not accepted.

If you are accepted to a PhD program, you will receive an admissions packet that will include more information about your program, including important dates and information about funding.

PhD programs sometimes have more strong applicants than they are able to accept. If this is the case, they may place some applicants on a waitlist. If another candidate who has gained admissions to the PhD program decides not to accept, they will offer this position to the next candidate on the waitlist.